Well, we’ve been terrifically amused and amusing at the expense of Pope Francis, who this week declared at a Vatican audience that:
“‘Many couples do not have children because they don’t want them, or have just one because they don’t want any more, but have two dogs, two cats… oh yes, dogs and cats take the place of children.’
It was, he said, proof of a ‘certain selfishness… it makes us laugh but it’s true. Renouncing parenthood diminishes us. It takes away our humanity.’
This was inevitably cue for British commentators to weigh up the merits of cats and dogs versus children, and for some to pronounce in favour of the cats. And the obvious point was duly observed, that Pope Francis, as a celibate, had himself renounced parenthood (though for rather different reasons).
As it happens, I think Francis is mistaken to see the matter in terms of pets or children; it is possible to have both. My own view is that having a dog makes children less selfish and generally nicer. If I didn’t live on the top floor of a mansion block, I’d be right round to a rescue centre. But when it comes to the question of having children and the reluctance in Europe, in particular, to replace one generation with another, the Pope really is onto something. He’s gone on about this before.
Notably, in May last year, he addressed Italy’s ‘demographic winter’ head on.
He was speaking to the Association for Families, at a conference that attracted business and political leaders, including Mario Draghi. And he put the anti-natalism culture squarely down to selfishness.
“‘There is a phrase from the Gospel that can help anyone, even those who do not believe, to direct their choices. Jesus says: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6: 21). Where is our treasure, the treasure of our society? In the children or in finances? What attracts us, family or income? There must be the courage to choose what comes first, because that is where the heart is bound. The courage to choose life is creative, because it does not accumulate or multiply what already exists, but opens up to novelty, to surprises: every human life is a true novelty, which knows no before and after in history.’
The problem is particularly acute in Italy, which increasingly resembles Vulgaria in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, where children are banned and adults behave like children. It has the lowest birth rate since 1861 when the country was unified – only 404,892 children were born in Italy in 2020, compared to 576,659 born in 2008.
It’s the same across the board in Europe, where no European country had a fertility rate (the number of children born to each woman) of two or more in 2019, unless you count Turkey, at 2.1, which isn’t actually European, and whose amiable president Recep Erdogan is terrifically pro-natalist.
The UK doesn’t do as badly as Italy or Bulgaria (which has seen an exodus of young people in the last decade), and has a fertility rate of just under 1.8. My guess would be that some communities have larger families than others; for the average couple, the cost of housing is probably the most effective contraceptive. According to the Office for National Statistics, half of women in the UK will not have had a child by the age of 30, with just under a fifth not having children at all. But even here there’s a cultural component.
The lobby group, Population Matters, which argues for smaller families (best start in Nigeria rather than Monaco, folks) conducted a poll last year showing that:
“‘nearly a third of 18 to 24yr olds (32 per cent) say their understanding of the environment has made them want to have fewer or no children, while very similar proportions (31 per cent) cite concerns about the negative environmental effects of having children as influencing them to have fewer or none. The Yonder poll of a representative sample of UK adults was conducted in May and found that one-in-six young people (18 to 34 years old) don’t want children at all (16 per cent).’
Is that selfish, abjuring the most natural instinct of humankind, to have a family, for the sake of the environment? Pope Francis, who’s very environmentally friendly, made the obvious point in his address: that the next generation is the means to address concerns about sustainability. I rather hope that Greta Thunberg marries and has two children, like her own parents, or more, just to show how it’s done.
The easy way out of a population crisis is to import people from other countries, the harder way out is to make it worthwhile to have children and to see children as worthwhile in themselves. Hungary is going out of its way to do so with lavish tax breaks and benefits for couples with children, and these kinds of policies don’t come cheap. But at least the country has identified its objectives.
Or as the Pope puts it:
“‘There is a need for wide-ranging, far-sighted family policies: not based on the search for immediate consensus, but on the growth of the common good in the long term. This is the difference between running public affairs and being a good politician. There is an urgent need to offer young people guarantees of sufficiently stable employment, security for their homes, and incentives not to leave the country. It is a task that also closely concerns the world of economics: how wonderful it would be to see an increase in the number of businesses and companies that, in addition to producing profits, promote lives, that are careful never to exploit people with unsustainable conditions and hours, that are able to distribute part of the profits to workers, with a view to contributing to an invaluable development, that of families! This is a challenge not only for Italy, but for many countries, often rich in resources, but poor in hope.’
Well, quite. So… is it selfish to have pets as child substitutes? Yes it is. I’d say, have both.